Some big anniversaries are coming up in 2019.
It’ll be half a century since the first moon landing, Chappaquiddick and Woodstock. It will also be 50 years since the Miracle Mets won a world championship.
That 1969 baseball season was also the period during which one-time New York Yankee Jim Bouton began to record observations for a famous memoir. “Ball Four, My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knucklelball in the Big Leagues” was published the following year.
“Ball Four” wasn’t the first “warts and all” sports memoir. That distinction usually goes to Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay” (1968). It was a similar interior monologue with real-life observations but not as raw. It also didn’t elicit the same reaction from critics, fans and team owners.
Bouton’s book shook up a lot of people via brutal honesty about sports management, drug use in baseball, life on the road and fame. It was of its time, a time when everyone defied convention. It was also ahead of its time, and certainly for the better, as it turned “heroes” into humans.
Bouton was new to writing or putting down his thoughts in 1969. Notes from the 25-year anniversary reprint of Ball Four recalled his not really knowing what he was doing in the early stages.
Bouton recounted turning a few cassette tapes of thoughts and “notes” over to Leonard Schecter, his editor. He was in doubt about having anything worth publishing at the time.
But Schecter listened, and reassured Bouton that there was enough good stuff on a single tape for an entire book.
I met Jim Bouton a couple of times.
First was when he was out of baseball for a period and doing sportscasts on local news in New York. My college classmates all knew him and packed the auditorium for a talk when he was on kind of a lecture tour.
Bouton had already written a sequel to “Ball Four,” giving a major market television newsroom the same treatment he gave the Seattle Pilots clubhouse. He also talked about the nearly irrational reaction to the first book and added some more baseball stories.
His message to my classmates was that if you go by the numbers, it was less likely for a pro athlete to make it to a major league than it was for a young student to graduate from med school or law school. The thought elicited some derisive comments, but Bouton was nonplused.
We met briefly again in New York City, during an out-of-studio radio broadcast I helped out on in 1989. Bouton appeared with Phil Linz, central figure to the “harmonica incident,” a dustup in the back of a bus which purportedly turned the 1964 season around for the Yankees.
They were interviewed by Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo from a glass-topped atrium at what was once the Commodore Hotel. Russo had recently received his nickname from a sports media writer.
Bouton’s observations were about how times had changed. “Ball Four,” once considered subversive for observing that Mickey Mantle drank a bit and Carl Yastremski often dogged it, was by then considered a cherished piece of Americana.
I read some of “Ball Four” last night at the Rock-N-Read-Athon to benefit the Donald Heiter Community Center. Not all readings need be holiday related, they told me.
I chose it because Jim Bouton is making a comeback of a kind.
A couple of years ago, I wanted to interview him. I don’t recall a specific reason, but I had not heard he had suffered a stroke in 2012. A couple of emails to his official website were not returned and I put the idea on hold.
A few years after that I read he was ailing, due to complications from dementia. But more recent reports indicate what were once terrible prospects for Bouton have turned around. The dreadful consequences of a brain disease with a long and complex name have apparently been alleviated a bit with a special medical regimen.
He was healthy enough, reports said, to accept an invitation to the 2018 Old Timer’s Game at the new Yankee Stadium. Now 79, he didn’t play, but joked that he might. It depended on who was also out there.
Bouton, with wife Paula Kurman, have traded notes with others with the same disease who could be helped by the same treatment. They included a former general manage of a minor league club Bouton played for several decades ago.
There is also talk of another book, an autobiography, 50 years after his first.
“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball,” Bouton concluded on “Ball Four’s” last page. “In the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
That’s why grown men cry when they leave the game.
Staff Writer Matt Farrand can be reached at 570-742-9671 and via email at email@example.com.